Jesus: how historians can know him and why it matters

IMG_1526NT scholar Craig Blomberg does a fine job in addressing this important subject.

The following is his section on miracles and the resurrection (the entire essay can be found here):

For some readers, potentially sympathetic to much of what we have already affirmed, the key sticking point remains the question of the supernatural. However strong the rest of the evidence may be, can we take seriously the historical claims of any documents as full of accounts of the miraculous as the canonical Gospels, and especially when so much hinges on the veracity of the most spectacular alleged miracle of all, namely, Jesus’ resurrection? The largest part of an answer to this question lies outside the scope of this essay because it involves the much broader question of worldview. Is there reason to believe in a God who created the universe in the first place? If there is, then miracles arguably become a priori possible and perhaps even likely. Has science truly demonstrated that the universe is a closed continuum of cause and effect? If so, then we must exclude the miraculous, at least as normally conceived. These issues must be thoroughly considered elsewhere.

What can be noted here as we near the conclusion of this study is that other ancient documents sometimes contain miracle narratives that don’t preclude historians, whatever their views of the supernatural, from deriving sober historical detail from many other portions of those works. A striking example involves the four existing accounts of Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon River, committing himself to the civil war that would lead to his becoming emperor and turning the republic into an empire. Often alluded to as one of the most historical (and historic) of events found in ancient Mediterranean sources, it is nevertheless accompanied in some accounts by miraculous apparitions (along with problems of harmonization and dating remarkably parallel to those among the New Testament Gospels). Yet classicists who reject the supernatural still confidently recover substantial historical information from all these accounts.

Biblical scholars who are open to the supernatural are often accused of adopting a double standard: they will accept various miracles stories in the Bible but not in other works of ancient history. This would indeed be a double standard if their only rationale for such judgments were the sources in which the various accounts appeared. But often the corroborating evidence simply remains stronger for the biblical accounts.57 On the other hand, there are a small number of claims of the miraculous at numerous junctures throughout history that do pass stringent criteria of authenticity, and there is no reason that Christian scholars should not accept them as well. God, in the Bible, often works through those who are not his people; human manufacture and diabolical influence are also possible sources for apparent miracle-working power.58 It is telling, moreover, to observe how often the closest parallels to canonical Gospel miracles appear in later Jewish or Greco-Roman sources,59 so that if any tradition influenced any other one, it would be Christianity being “copycatted” later. Demonstrably pre-Christian traditions do not present close parallels to the New Testament Gospels’ miracles at all.60

As for the topic of the resurrection in particular, again an entirely separate essay would be needed to do it justice. But we may at least note here that several undisputed historical facts are very difficult to explain apart from Jesus’ genuine, bodily return to life, including (1) how a small band of defeated followers of Jesus were transformed almost overnight into bold witnesses, risking death by proclaiming his bodily resurrection before many of the same people who fifty days earlier had participated in his crucifixion; (2) what motivated a group of devoted Jews to change what they believed to be the eternally immutable Sabbath (or day of rest and worship) from Saturday to Sunday; (3) why they claimed in all versions of their testimony that women, whose witness was usually inadmissible in ancient law courts, were the first and primary witnesses to the resurrection; (4) what led them to declare Jesus to be both Lord and liberator despite his death by crucifixion, already interpreted, in light of Deuteronomy 21:23, to represent God’s curse; and (5) how the Jewish expectation of all people being raised from the dead together at the end of time (Dan 12:2) allowed them to declare Jesus to have been raised in advance of Judgment Day and separate from the general resurrection. It takes greater faith to believe in the various alternative accounts of the rise of the resurrection traditions in the first years of Christianity than to accept the accounts as retold in the New Testament.

For the sake of the Gospel: Paul’s apologetic speeches

Pulpits-and-Pastors

Apologetics or the defence of the faith plays an important role in the life of the church. We believe and confess a Jesus rooted in history and now reigning in glory. However, no-one can be reasoned into the kingdom anymore than one can be compelled to become a Christian by evidences for Christ’s life, death and resurrection. Like all theologising, apologetics must be done with Christ and him crucified for sinners in view. It is only once a person knows his or her plight due to sin that Christ’s vicarious atonement is believed as vital to salvation. It is this cruciform logic that informed Paul’s apologetic as Rev. Kim Riddlebarger argues:

First and foremost, when we analyze these apologetic speeches in Acts, it is clear that Paul seeks to be all things to all men for the sake of the Gospel, for throughout these encounters with various forms of unbelief, he repeatedly finds common ground with his audience. With those with whom he held the Old Testament in common (Jews and God-fearing Gentiles), he appeals to fulfilled prophecy by setting the Old Testament prophetic expectation side by side with the facts of the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. With pagan Gentiles, on the other hand, Paul begins with general revelation, not by “proving” God’s existence, but simply by proclaiming the God of Israel in language which echoes the Old Testament throughout. We also see the Apostle challenging whatever underlying pagan assumptions were present. But given Paul’s theological core convictions about the nature of human sinfulness, it is clear that in finding “common ground,” he does not in any sense expect to find so-called “neutral” common ground, as though the Apostle could somehow place both himself and his hearers in a “neutral” frame of mind, without any influence upon the discussion by prior intellectual commitments to faith or various forms of unbelief. For the common ground that Paul does find is in every case necessarily based in God’s self-disclosure, either the “Book of Nature” or in the redemptive acts of God associated with special revelation and ordinary history. Throughout Paul’s encounters with unbelief, it is the non-Christian (Jew, God-fearer, or pagan Gentile) who is confronted with the consequences of knowing God through this self-disclosure both in general and special revelation, but who instead inevitably suppresses that knowledge in unrighteousness. Thus Paul not only demonstrates his desire to be all things to all men by finding non-neutral common ground with his hearers, but he is repeatedly able to skillfully adjust his own “proclamation-defense” to each specific audience.

A second point that must be made when looking at these speeches is that Paul began with the proclamation of the Gospel, and once challenged, he was deftly able to give an apologetic by “reasoning” and “proving” from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ, and by challenging the very presuppositions underlying pagan unbelief. As we have seen in two instances (Lystra and Athens), Paul does this by using a form of the argument from contingency-the creation does indeed depend upon a creator. Neither Greek mythology nor Stoic or Epicurean cosmologies can give a satisfactory explanation of the world in which we live. Paul does not attempt to “prove” God’s existence typical of so-called “classical apologetics”; instead he proclaims Christ crucified, and then attempts to refute his opponents, showing the futility of unbelief. Paul places no confidence in the flesh, rather he believes that the proclamation of Christ crucified is the power of God unto salvation. He does not attempt to get his audience “to make a decision for Jesus”; he simply proclaims the truth, and then attacks the unbelieving assumptions of the opposition.

Third, throughout these speeches, it is clear that the supreme apologetic argument for Paul is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. No doubt this is the case, for it was Saul, the great persecutor of the Church, who became Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles. The risen Lord Jesus Christ himself confronted Paul while en route from Jerusalem to Damascus to hunt down and arrest Christians. Paul refers to this life-changing event in his apologetic speeches before the good citizens of Jerusalem (Acts 22:2 ff.) and before king Agrippa (Acts 26:9-18). In Pisidian Antioch, Paul concluded his sermon before the synagogue by declaring, “God raised [Jesus] from the dead, and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people” (Acts 13:30-31). Just as Peter had done in the Pentecost sermon in Acts 2, here Paul also makes appeal to the prophetic significance of our Lord’s Resurrection. “The fact that God raised him from the dead, never to decay is stated in these words…. ‘You will not yet your Holy One see decay.'” There was not only factual evidence for Christ’s Resurrection, there was theological necessity.

In the synagogue in Athens, Paul followed a similar tact, explaining that Jesus had to first suffer and then rise from the dead (Acts 17:3). And while standing before the pagan philosophers of the Areopagus, Paul ends his apologia with the words, God “has given proof of this to all men by raising [Jesus] from the dead.” In another amazing account, Paul spoke of his hope of the resurrection of the dead in the very presence of the assembled Sanhedrin, apparently to provoke an argument between his accusers, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who disagreed among themselves about the resurrection (Acts 23:6 ff.). Before Felix, Paul does much the same thing, proclaiming his hope in a resurrection, and acknowledging that it was this very hope that has brought him before Felix in the first place (Acts 24:15, 21). Even Felix’s successor, Festus, when conferring with King Agrippa, was forced to concede that Paul was incarcerated because of his proclamation “about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive” (Acts 25:19). And last, when Paul makes his defense before Agrippa, his apologetic appeal is to the hope of the resurrection. Thus Paul asks Agrippa, “Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?” Paul concludes this defense by declaring, “I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen-that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.” When Festus interrupted Paul and declared to the Apostle, “you are out of your mind,” Paul’s response is significant: “I am not insane, most excellent Festus…. What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things…. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner.” “King Agrippa,” Paul asks, “do you believe the prophets? I know you do!” To which Agrippa replies, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to become a Christian?” “Short time or long-I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening today may become what I am” (Act 26:21 ff.).

Thus it seems that Paul’s “proclamation-defense” is clearly anchored in the death, burial and especially the resurrection of Jesus Christ, not in the formal proofs of classical apologetics. Neither can we view Paul’s apologetic through the lens of any semi-Pelagian form of evangelical evidential apologetics which sees Christian evidences as merely additional inducements for one to make a “decision” for Jesus. For Paul’s apologetic is perfectly consistent with his theological core and, given human sinfulness and moral depravity typical of this present “evil age,” evidential “facts” by themselves cannot tip the scale from unbelief to faith. For Paul it is the Gospel-the wisdom of the age to come-which is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe, and his use of Christian evidences is to be seen in the context of the content of his proclamation, namely the historical events associated with the dying and rising of Christ. The same man who put no confidence in the flesh, is the man who also “reasoned,” “discoursed,” “persuaded,” and “debated” with his audiences that the content of his preaching was true, because the Lord of Glory rose again from the dead.

(For the entire essay, go here.)